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'I knew that if we worked together, we could all get out'

‘I wasn’t gonna die that way’: Transcript of ToI interview with hostage Jeff Cohen

Beth Israel congregant explains decision to remain inside, despite opportunities to flee, as doing so would have endangered other hostages; reveals gunman’s ‘goodwill’ gesture

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

An aerial view of police standing in front of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, in Colleyville, Texas (AP Photo/Brandon Wade); Inset: Congregation Beth Israel member Jeffrey Cohen speaks on January 17, 2022. (Screen capture)
An aerial view of police standing in front of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, in Colleyville, Texas (AP Photo/Brandon Wade); Inset: Congregation Beth Israel member Jeffrey Cohen speaks on January 17, 2022. (Screen capture)

The following is a transcript of the interview The Times of Israel conducted with Jeff Cohen, one of the four worshipers held hostage by gunman Malik Faisal Akram during Sabbath morning services at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas.

The Monday Zoom conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Times of Israel: Hi, Mr. Cohen. Thank you very much for doing this. I don’t take for granted how difficult it must be to expose yourself publicly like this so soon after such a traumatic experience, and I really do appreciate it.

Jeff Cohen: Well, the story is important. The things that need to be said are important. Immediately afterward, I needed time to sleep, I needed time to get my head on right. I got to sleep last night, so here we are.

As we get started, I thought it might be helpful if you could share a bit of background about yourself.

So I’m 57, almost 58. I moved to Texas in 1986, and on the first weekend, I knew I found home. The way that people are, the way that things are here, are just great. I live a couple of towns over from Colleyville in Keller, Texas. It’s a nice community here, a good place to be. It’s not exactly the most exciting place, and not where you would necessarily expect things like this to happen.

I went to school in Pittsburgh, and I used to regularly walk by Tree of Life [chokes up] so when that happened — that was more of a shock. Of course, we had a very different ending here than they did there, thank God.

I am married. I’ve got two adult children. This is actually my second marriage. My first wife died several years back.

SWAT team members deploy near Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue during a hostage situation in Colleyville, Texas, January 15, 2022. (Andy Jacobsohn/AFP)

When did you start getting involved in Congregation Beth Israel?

We had actually gone to Beth Israel when it first opened, long before there was a synagogue building or anything like that. We had come over [to Texas], and we were going [to CBI], and the kids were going to religious school here. For whatever reason, we turned sideways with them and stopped going. When my wife died in 2016, I needed to do a funeral, and they were very, very helpful. Rabbi Charlie was wonderful, and I’ve been going there and active there since then.

Can you share a little bit about what the CBI community is like?

It’s extremely supportive. The first night of the shiva (mourning week) at my house, other than my kids and a couple of friends, the place was filled with people. People just came because [chokes up] because we as a congregation, we as a community take care of each other. So they just showed up, and I’ve got a lot of friends there as a result of things like that. Like every community, things go up and down. There are all kinds of arguments and disputes among people, but we’re still mostly friends and that’s important.

And you attend services every week? How far away do you live from the synagogue?

I’m about a 15-minute drive away. I go most weeks. I generally go either Friday or Saturday. We’ve got a Friday night service and a Saturday morning service, and I’ll go to one or the other. I enjoy the teaching that we do on Saturday in particular. We do a full Torah service, and then after the service we discuss, and Rabbi Charlie is great at bringing up different views and different Torah readings and Midrash around it. It’s been a great learning experience, and it’s a good bunch of folks. I like being there.

Like everywhere though, [the synagogue building was] closed down during COVID, for all intents and purposes. At that point, I was chairing the religious practice committee, and it was important to us to still have a way of [continuing services]. The rabbi and I started doing it on Zoom, and I was in charge of turning the pages on PDF [prayer book] to the right spot [on the Zoom screen].

We’ve been able to continue to use Zoom, and that was critical on Saturday because as we were streaming and this guy started yelling and whatnot, people online were able to know about it. For me, I wanted to make sure that there was an open line [of communication], so that the authorities, the police, the FBI, could hear what was going on.

So the feed on Facebook Live wasn’t left on for the first three hours because you were being held at gunpoint and weren’t able to get to the computer to shut it off?

Quite the opposite. He had us sitting down and at one point one of the other hostages wanted to turn it off. But he said, “No, just leave it, just leave it. Just. Leave. It. On.”

Police stand in front of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, January 16, 2022, in Colleyville, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

Taking a step back for a second, how many people typically show up in person for a Saturday morning service. Is four the usual number you get?

Pre-COVID, we’d get 10-15 people there. Post-COVID, having four to six in person is pretty normal, and then having a handful online. We usually have a minyan in total, but I don’t know [how many people were online at the start of the service].

I know you said you attend most weeks, but was there anything unique about why you wanted to go this week?

The reason I wanted to come on Saturday was that it was Shabbat Shira. We’re reading the story of the Song of the Sea. It’s a nice service, and in the Torah, [the passage is] even written differently. So it’s special, it’s fun, it’s something I wanted to do.

Okay, so take me through what happened when you arrived.

When I arrived, our attacker was actually already there. This was at about five minutes to ten, and the service starts at ten. I think [Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker said something like, “Go say hello. This man was out in the cold and was struggling, so we brought him in and gave him a cup of tea.”

I said hello. He nodded and smiled. He was on the phone, but I didn’t realize right away. When I did, I said, “Oh, I didn’t realize you’re on the phone. I’ll talk afterward.”

All the things they tell you to look for in somebody — their eyes darting about, hands being jittery or hidden, facial or body expressions being troubled — he didn’t have that. He was smiling, he was comfortable, he was relaxed, his hands were on the table, so I really didn’t think much of it.

We went and we started the service. After the Amidah, I finished my part, and I sat down. I heard that unmistakable sound of a slide on an automatic weapon. But it didn’t make sense. It was a sound that was out of place, so I didn’t give it much thought. However, the rabbi heard it also, and Rabbi Charlie was looking at him.

Within just a few seconds, [the attacker] must have jumped up, and he was yelling. Honestly, I don’t remember what he yelled, but I keep my phone next to me, and I dialed 911 and I turned it over so that he couldn’t see the screen. I got up and I walked over toward where he suggested.

While there, I aligned myself with an exit door, and this is very important. It’s probably the most important thing to know. If you have an opportunity — no — make an opportunity to take an active shooter class because that’s what saved our lives. That gave me the forethought to position myself where I did.

When did you take this course? Who was it with?

A representative from the Community Security Network came to all the synagogues in the area about six to eight months ago.

The thing we learned was that in these situations, it’s “run, hide, fight.” Run was not an option, in that you’ve got a guy who’s not shooting yet, and if I had left — I could have gotten out a couple of times after the very beginning — but if I had, he would’ve killed the other people. I knew that if we worked together, we could all get out.

A police vehicle patrols an intersection on January 15, 2022, in Colleyville, Texas, near Congregation Beth Israel. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images via AFP)

I both tactically and strategically positioned myself and helped others move into a position so that we could escape. I want to emphasize that we were not released or rescued. We escaped. It just so happens that when we, in the room, saw the situation devolving, the FBI, the SWAT team and police knew it was devolving too and were ready to breach moments after we escaped.

Okay, but we’re talking about 11 hours that he held you all hostage. He was talking the entire time? For someone to try and talk for two hours is incredibly difficult, but 11?

It’s been reported by his brother that he had some mental illness, and I believe that to be true. His main objective was to free a woman [Aafia Siddiqui], and that was his goal. He told us that he chose the closest synagogue to the facility where she’s being held.

Why a synagogue?

Well, he did not come there to kill Jews. His objective was not to murder people. He told us this through his actions. He came here to release her. But he bought into the extremely dangerous, antisemitic trope that Jews control everything. That we control the world, we control the media, we control the banks, we control the government; that we could call President Biden and have him release her.

He believed wrongly — because this is not how we’re set up in this country — that we could call the chief rabbi of the United States, where there is no such thing. He even asked us to call another rabbi in New York [Central Synagogue senior Rabbi Angela Buchdahl], and [we] called her on the phone, but we had to look her number up. It’s not like any of us knew her. I don’t know how Rabbi Charlie was able to get her cellphone number, but he did.

President Biden mentioned that he employed anti-Israel rhetoric as well?

Frequently. It’s the same trope. It was anti-Zionism, anti-Israel, anti-America, anti-Jewish. He was also anti-LGBTQ, anti-gay. He rambled on about how white people were contributing to their own problems. He even spoke about the evils of all the other Muslims in the world. He basically said that everything is messed up, and everybody doesn’t understand, but he does.

And what did you say to him throughout all of this?

You learn in these [active shooter] courses that when you’re in this kind of situation, if you can talk to [the assailant], you talk to them. You stay calm, you stay collected.

I was just asking questions, talking to him, when he said the thing about the chief rabbi of the US, I said, “You’ve got to understand. While in the UK [where Akram is from] you have a chief rabbi, but in this country, we don’t have one.”

He kept referring to the woman who was the prisoner he was trying to release as his sister, saying that he just wanted to talk to his sister. So I asked him, “When was the last time you spoke with your sister?” And he responded, “Well, I’ve never spoken to her.” At that point, I realized that he wasn’t talking about his actual sister.

Congregation Beth Israel hostage taker, identified as 44-year-old British national Malik Faisal Akram. (Courtesy)

Did you think he was going to use his gun?

During the first 15-30 minutes? Absolutely. He let us call our families, and I called my wife, I called my children, and left them a very brief message, where I basically said “I’m at the synagogue, we have a gunman here who says he’s got a bomb. This may not end well. I love you. Remember me.” [chokes up] I tried to make the calls quickly because I didn’t want them to be cut off. I also put out a short Facebook notice because I wanted someone to at least know what was going on, and I believe that someone did take action and notified law enforcement because of that post.

And then after that first hour, things changed?

He was much calmer after. He had one objective. He repeatedly said that he didn’t want to hurt us, that he didn’t want to kill us, that he would let us go, that he was the only one who was going to die… that if the police brought his sister there, he and she would go out on the front lawn and let the authorities kill him. He kept speaking about martyrdom. He was the only one who needed to die that day.

At around 5 p.m., he even let one of you guys go.

Right, this was kind of a weird story. He decided he was going to show some goodwill. He knew we were hungry, that we hadn’t eaten. He actually asked [if we’d eaten], and I said ‘No, I hadn’t. I was planning on eating here [at the kiddush (post-prayer repast)].

He said, “I will show some good faith. I will let you go for a half hour, but you have to promise to come back. Would you do that?”

I said, “Honestly, no. First of all, it’s going to take me 15 minutes to get home and 15 minutes to get back. If I’m going to cook something and have some lunch, that’s going to take a minimum of 15 to 20 minutes. At a bare minimum, it’s going to take me an hour.

“And secondly, I’m being honest with you, I can’t promise that I’ll come back. Right now, I think I would, but the police might not let me. I may have a change of heart. So no, I can’t promise that.”

He laughed at that [and said] “Yeah, I see what you’re saying.” He then asked, “Well, who should I let go? I pointed to one of the guys who’d been getting ill. He’d been having some heart palpitations. I said, “He’s not well. He needs to go.” So [that man] starts getting up to leave at the gunman’s request, but he started walking over to another person — I’m trying not to use names on purpose — and suggested that man [who was older] leave instead.

The gunman at this point was somewhat sympathetic and trying to show what a good person he was and said, “Yes, you can leave. You’re like my father. I will let you go.”

I don’t want to put words in somebody else’s mouth, but I don’t think this guy [the older gentleman] was ready to go either, but we all insisted, so he did and he left. That allowed us to be a small group, which made escaping easier and faster because you’ve got to be able to move, and this person [who was released] doesn’t move like he did in his 20s, let alone his 50s or 60s.

But something changed toward the end of the standoff.

In the last maybe half hour, his demeanor changed completely. He was tired, he was frustrated, he was probably hungry because the only thing he ate was a bag of potato chips. At that point, he became much more threatening. He said “I’ll put a bullet in each one of these. Three bullets — one in each of them.”

Moments before we escaped, he said “Get down on your knees!” and motioned with his gun.

At which point I stared at him, leaned forward, and went “No.”

I was not going to die that way — it’s just not going to happen.

That was the first time that I’d been aggressive in any way. We had been completely subservient to him up to that point, and he got a little scared.

After that he pulled back. He went and sat down. I didn’t see him put the gun down, but I think he went to pour himself some soda. I heard Charlie yell, “Run!” and he threw the chair [at Akram].

Rabbi Charlie Citron-Walker talks to reporters outside of Whites Chapel United Methodist Church following a special service on January 17, 2022 in Southlake, Texas. (Emil Lippe / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

My fellow hostage got one step in front of me. He was the one who had been feeling ill, so I grabbed him and put both hands underneath his arms, under his shoulders and pushed him through the door. He hit the emergency release on the door, it popped open and he went running. But I tripped, and I heard Rabbi Charlie come through after me.

When I fell to the ground, I knocked my glasses off. I picked them up because I can’t see a whole lot without them, and I went crawling toward the hedgerow [separating the synagogue property from a home next door], which is just a few feet from there. I thought I’d actually gotten under the hedgerow, and that my head and shoulders were underneath, but I’d come to find out that my whole body was out. I heard the gunman come out after that, so I tried getting further under, but it was too thick, so I couldn’t get very far under.

I heard one of the FBI officers yell, “Come to the front, come to the front.” I got up and ran. Coach would have been happy. I ran my best 40 [yard] ever. We were collected in the back and within seconds, we heard the breach occur when they blew what I think was the back door [of the synagogue]. We heard the explosion and them entering. We heard a lot of shots, including some automatic weapon fire, and then it was over.

The agents hurried us into the local SWAT team’s semi-armored protected vehicle, and they took us to the command center at the elementary school to get a medical check and get debriefed and everything.

Can I ask whether the synagogue typically has any security presence or if there had been someone there that day.

In the pre-COVID days, we’d always had someone come in. Normally an off-duty police officer. We have a wonderful relationship with the chief of police in Colleyville. He has met our [synagogue] president and many of our people to help with security. There is a whole list of officers who are willing to serve in this capacity — to be that off-duty officer — we pay them of course — to be there and just be a presence.

In this instance, this Saturday, we didn’t have anybody. We expected very few people. Quite frankly — I know these guys, I see them every week, and I have complete trust and respect for them, but the only thing they could have done in this situation — since [the attacker] didn’t force his way in — the only thing they could have done was get the command center set up a couple of minutes faster.

An aerial view of police standing in front of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, Jan. 16, 2022, in Colleyville, Texas (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

How do you think what happened will change you going forward?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know how what’s happened is going to change me yet. I can only tell you how I think it will and what it has done for me. Number one for me — the active shooter course is critical. If I could do anything [chokes up] if I can do anything to help encourage anyone, any organization that is having meetings, if I can get others to take that course — especially the Jewish organizations, because we are the target. We’re the target because of all of these horrible tropes — then I would do it.

The second thing is reaching out to others so that it’s harder to hate. We try very hard to do that in our [CBI] community here. It’s no secret that this area has had some problems with discrimination. It’s been very public, but that’s not the majority of the people, and as more people become aware that others have been poisoned by these tropes, maybe we can help others learn.

As far as getting back into the synagogue, I’m obviously very comfortable with Zoom, but the habit of being in the building is important to me, so if I can, I prefer to be one of those bodies in the seats.

Even next week?

Even next week.

Will I be able to? I don’t know. Next week it’s likely [the synagogue] will be closed because there’s a lot to be done, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to go.

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